A new government program aimed to speed up these notoriously sluggish transactions goes into effect on April 5, increasing your chances of negotiating a distressed-property bargain.
Q: I am looking to buy my first home, and it seems like short-sales are priced much lower than regular sales. Are these prices negotiable, or are they the bottom line that lenders will accept?
A: Many lenders negotiate prices for short-sales, in which the seller is offering the home for less than is owed on the mortgage. But traditionally the only way you could find out was to submit a below-list offer and wait—often for many months—for a response. If the bank made a counter-offer, you knew you were in the ballpark; if they didn't respond at all, you were too low. By then, you may have lost all interest in buying the property.
The good news is, on April 5, this frustrating system will change at least for some buyers and sellers. That's when the federal government will begin to provide financial incentives to lenders to do more short sales. The rules also help standardize the process, so your chances of negotiating a distressed-property bargain will increase.
Under the old practices, when a financially-distressed seller brought a potential buyer who was offering less than the amount owed on the loan, the bank would order an appraisal or broker's price opinion (BPO) and then decide whether the offer was acceptable. Under the new federal rules, banks will order a BPO before the property is listed for sale, and will share information on the minimum net proceeds they're willing to accept with the sellers. If they then bring in a buyer whose offer is equal to or greater than this pre-approved amount, the lender must accept it within 10 days.
Not all sellers are eligible for this program, called Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives (HAFA) (for the requirements see Help for America's Homeowner's Supplemental Directive 09-09). But since the process is likely to go so much smoother for those who buy and sell under HAFA, I suggest you wait a bit until the program goes into effect and concentrate on finding these "pre-approved" deals.
Of course, when you do find a property you like, you may not be the only person bidding on it. To improve your chances of winning, make sure your offer is "clean," with as few contingencies as possible (though I would never forego a home inspection). Include tax and credit records, and a mortgage pre-approval letter. If you can afford to pay cash, that will put you in an even stronger bargaining position.
Still, in your eagerness to win the property, don't forget that distressed properties often come with added financial burdens. Although under HAFA, the seller is supposed to provide clear title, to protect yourself your, your contract must make it clear that you will not be responsible for any of the seller's unpaid property taxes, liens or second trusts. Also, cash-strapped homeowners often stop paying taxes and homeowners' association fees during the time between when the house is listed and the deal is closed. To make sure that you're not on the hook for these expenses, Leonard P. Baron, professor of finance at San Diego State University, recommends that you ask that the bank escrow at least six months worth of taxes and HOA fees, to cover any potential shortfall.